Three-Hundred Strikeout Pitchers – The Big Unit is Their King

Chris sale Red Sox photo

Photo by Keith Allison

On September 20, as the Red Sox topped the Orioles in Baltimore by a 9-0 score, Boston ace Chris Sale picked up his 17th win of the season (versus seven losses).  He went eight innings giving up four hits, no walks and fanning 13. The final whiff of the game (Ryan Flaherty for the third out in the bottom of the eighth inning) was Sale’s 300th strikeout of the season.  This made Sale just the 39th MLB pitcher overall – and just the 16th since 1900 – to record a 300-strikeout season.  It was also just the 66th season of 300 or more MLB strikeouts chalked up overall – and just the 35th since 1900.

This led Baseball Roundtable to take a look at the national pastime’s roster of 300-strikeout pitchers – and, one thing became clear, Randy “TheBig Unit” Johnson is their King – holding or sharing a host of 300K records (ranging from most 300K seasons to most consecutive 300K seasons to reaching 300K in the fewest stars in a season). Read on to learn about those marks and more.  TopSSKAs you can see, the chart above is divided into pre-1900 and since-1900 categories. There is good reason to look at the modern-day (versus the pre-1900) record.  The game was simply a lot different in its early days.  Consider the fact that of the 300+ strikeout seasons recorded since 1883, 15 (about 23 percent) took place in 1884. (At that time, the National League, American Association and Union Association were considered “major leagues.”) Since 1900, no season has seen more than two pitchers achieve 300 strikeouts.

A look at the 1884 MLB leader board give a solid indication of how much more likely a 300-strikeout season was in that era.  Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn led all pitchers in starts with 73 (he completed them all) and innings pitched (678 2/3). In fact, it took 523 innings pitched just to make the top ten. It’s little wonder 1884 saw 15 hurlers reach the 300K mark.

                 300+ Strikeout Seasons by Decade:

                    1883-89 … 27             1940-49 … 1

                    1890-99 … 4               1950-59 … 0

                    1900-09 … 2               1960-69 … 4

                     1910-19 … 2               1970-79 … 11*

                    1920-29 … 0               1980-89 … 2

                     1930-39 … 0               1990-99 … 7**

                                                             2000-09 … 4

                                                             2010-17 … 2

*Let’s call this the Nolan Ryan era.

** The Randy Johnson era.

For fun, let’s take a look at some of the game’s strikeouts records.

  • Along the way to his 300 strikeouts, Chris Sale had one streak of eight consecutive games with ten or more strikeouts (April 10-May 19) – tying the MLB record (which he already shared with Pedro Martinez – Red Sox 1999). Sale also had an eight-game streak of ten or more whiffs for the White Sox in 2015.

Chris Sale’s 13-strikeout game of September 20th was his 18th  2017 game with 10 or more whiffs.  Wondering about the record for a single season?  It’s 23, accomplished once in the AL (Nolan Ryan – 1973) and three times in the NL (Randy Johnson – 1999, 2000, 2001).

  • Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan share the record for the most 300+ strikeout seasons at six.
  • The only two pitchers to record a 300-strikeout season in both the American League and National League are: Randy Johnson (Diamondbacks and Mariners) and Pedro Martinez (Expos and Red Sox).
Randy Johnson photo

Photo by SD Dirk

Randy Johnson is the only player since 1900 to record a 300-strikeout season while playing for two teams in single season.  In 1998, Johnson started the season with the Seattle Mariners and was traded (right at the July 31 trade deadline) to the Houston Astros for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and a player to be named later (John Halama). At the time of the trade, the Big Unit was 9-10, 4.33 with Seattle – with 213 strikeouts in 160 innings. He helped the Astros win the NL Central Division title, starting 11 games and going 10-1, 1.28 – with 116 punch outs in 84 1/3 innings.  This also gives Johnson the distinction of the being the only hurler with a 300-strikeout season split between the AL and NL. Side note:  In 1884, four players recorded 300+ strikeout seasons, while splitting time among two teams.  If your interest runs that deep, see the list at the end of this post.)

  • Chris Sale reached his 300th strikeout in his 31st game of 2017. Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks made it to the 300K mark the fastest – in 28 games in 2001. Johnson finished 2001 with 372 strikeouts in 35 games (34 starts) and 260 innings pitched.
  • Only twice has one team had two 300+ strikeout pitchers in the same season – and one of those needs an asterisk. In 2002, Randy Johnson (there’s his name again) and Curt Schilling of the Diamondbacks fanned 324 and 316 batters, respectively.  Back in 1884, Old Hoss Radbourn of the Providence Grays fanned 441.  His teammate Charlie Sweeney fanned 337 batters, but only 145 with Providence (the remaining 192 were with the Union Association St. Louis Maroons).
  • Randy Johnson holds the record for consecutive 300-strikeout seasons at five (1998-2002); all for the Diamondbacks. Others with consecutive 300-whiff campaigns: Nolan Ryan (1972-74 and 1976-77, Angels); Amos Rusie (1890-92, Giants); Curt Schilling (1997-98, Phillies); J.R. Richard (1978-79, Astros); Rube Waddell (1903-04, Athletics); Toad Ramsey (1886-87, Louisville of the American Association); John Clarkson (1885-86, Chicago of the National League); Tim Keefe (1883-84, NY Metropolitans of the American Association); Old Hoss Radbourn (1883-84, Providence Grays of the National League).
  • Larry McKeon was the youngest player ever to record a 300+ strikeout season – fanning 308 as an 18-year-old rookie with the American Association Indianapolis Hoosiers in 1884. McKeon, by the way, went 18-41 that season, with a 3.05 ERA (512 innings pitched). The next year, he fanned only 117 (290 innings), but improved to 20-13, 2.86.
  • Nolan Ryan is the oldest pitcher to ever record a 300+ strikeout season, fanning 301 batters for the Texas Rangers (1989) as a 42-year-old. He went 16-10 that year, with a 3.20 ERA (32 starts, 239 1/3 innings pitched).
  • Players who have recorded 300-strikeout campaigns with multiple teams include: Curt Schilling (Diamondbacks and Phillies); Pedro Martinez (Expos and Red Sox); Nolan Ryan (Angels and Rangers); Randy Johnson (Diamondbacks, Mariners); Tim Keefe (New York Giants of the NL and New York Metropolitans of the American Association); Ed Morris (Pittsburgh and Columbus of the American Association).

KILROY WAS HERE

Matt Kilroy holds the record for the strikeouts in a season – 513 in 1886, for the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association.  As a 20-year-old rookie, the 5’9”, 175-pound southpaw completed 66 of 68 starts, going 29-34 with a 3.37 ERA and 513 strikeouts in 583 innings pitched.  The following season (still with Baltimore), Kilroy went 46-19, 3.07 – but fanned only 217 batters in 589 1/3 innings. He pitched ten MLB seasons, going 141-133, 3.47.  The modern-era record belongs to Nolan Ryan who fanned 383 batters for the Angels in 1983.  Ryan went 21-16, 2.87 that season – and fanned his 383 batters in 326 innings.

  • In 1904, Rube Waddell fanned a then (post-1900) record 349 batters – a mark which stood until 1965, when the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax fanned 382. Waddell held the AL season strikeout record until 1973, when Nolan Ryan fanned 383 for the Angels.   How good was Waddell?  When he fanned 349 in 1904, the next best total was 239. Elected to the to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946, Waddell was considered one of the most talented and eccentric MLB players ever,  For more on Waddell, his baseball skills and his antics, BBRT suggests: Rube Waddell: The Zany, Brilliant Life of a Strikeout Artist, by Allan Howard Levy and Just a Big Kid: The Life and Times of Rube Waddell, by Paul Proia.

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Three-hundred (or more) Strikeouts in a Season – A (reverse) Chronological List

2017

Chris Sale                     Red Sox (AL)                          300

2015

Clayton Kershaw          Dodgers (NL)                          301

2002

Curt Schilling                Diamondbacks (NL)                316

Randy Johnson             Diamondbacks (NL)                334

2001

Randy Johnson             Diamondbacks (NL)                372

2000

Randy Johnson            Diamondbacks (NL)                 347

1999

Randy Johnson            Diamondbacks (AL)                 364

Pedro Martinez            Red Sox (AL)                            313

1998

Randy Johnson           Mariners (AL)/Astros (NL)         329

Curt Schilling               Phillies (NL)                               300

1997

Curt Schilling                Phillies (NL)                             319

Pedro Martinez             Expos (NL)                              305

1993

Randy Johnson             Mariners (AL)                          308

1989

Nolan Ryan                  Rangers (AL)                           301

1986

Mike Scott                     Astros (NL)                             306

1979

J.R. Richard                  Astros (NL)                             313

1978

J.R. Richard                  Astros (NL)                             303

1977

Nolan Ryan                  Angels (AL)                             341

1976

Nolan Ryan                  Angels (AL)                             327

1974

Nolan Ryan                  Angels (AL)                             367

1973

Nolan Ryan                  Angels (AL)                             383

1972

Nolan Ryan                  Angels (AL)                             329

Steve Carlton               Phillies (NL)                             310

1971

Mickey Lolich              Tigers (AL)                              308

Vida Blue                     A’s (AL)                                   301

1970

Sam McDowell            Indians (AL)                             304

1966

Sandy Koufax              Dodgers (NL)                          317

1965

Sandy Koufax              Dodgers (NL)                          382

Sam McDowell            Indians (AL)                             325

1963

Sandy Koufax              Dodgers (NL)                          306

1946

Bob Feller                    Indians (AL)                             348

1912

Walter Johnson           Senators (AL)                          303

1910

Walter Johnson           Senators (AL)                          313

1904

Rube Waddell              Athletics (AL)                           349

1903

Rube Waddell              Athletics (AL)                           302

1892

Bill Hutchinson             Chicago Colts (NL)                  314

Amos Rusie                  Giants (NL)                              304

1891

Amos Rusie                  Giants (NL)                              337

1890

Amos Rusie                  Giants (NL)                              341

1889

Mark Baldwin               Columbus Solons (AA)           368

1888

Tim Keefe                    Giants (NL)                              335

1887

Toad Ramsey               Louisville Colonels (AA)          355

1886

Matt Kilroy                   Balt. Orioles (AA)                      513

Toad Ramsey               Louisville Colonels (AA)           499

Ed Morris                     Pittsburgh Alleghenys (AA)       326

Lady Baldwin               Detroit Wolverines (NL)             323

John Clarkson              Chic. White Stockings (NL)       313

1885

John Clarkson              Chic. White Stockings (NL)      308

1884

Hugh Daily                   Chi./Pitt. (UA)                            483

Dupee Shaw                 Det. (NL)/Bost.(UA)                  451

Old Hoss Radbourn      Providence Grays  (NL)           441

Charlie Buffinton           Boston Beaneaters (NL)           417

Guy Hecker                  Louisville Colonels (AA)            385

Bill Sweeney                 Balt. Monumentals (UA)            374

Pud Galvin                    Buffalo Bisons (NL)                   369

Hardie Henderson         Baltimore Orioles (AA)             346

Mickey Welch                Giants (NL)                               345

Jim McCormick             Cleveland (NL)/Cinc. (UA)         343

Charlie Sweeney           Providence (NL)/St.L. (UA)       337

Tim Keefe                      NY Metropolitans (AA)              334

Tony Mullane                 Toledo Blue Stockings (AA)       325

Larry McKeon                Ind. Hoosiers ((AA)                    308

Ed Morris                       Columbus Buckeyes (AA)          302

1883

Tim Keefe                       NY Metropolitans (AA)               359

Jim Whitney                    Boston Beaneaters (NL)            345

Old Hoss Radbourn        Providence Grays (NL)             315

 

Primary Sources:  The ESPB Baseball Encyclopedia; Baseball-Reference.com; Baseball-Almanac.com

 

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Member:  Society for American Baseball Research (SABR); The Baseball Reliquary; The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; Baseball Bloggers Alliance.

 

 

 

 

 

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